Sometimes, it takes becoming a full-fledged grown-up to understand and appreciate what happened when you were a kid.
40 years ago this summer, I first set foot on what I now consider hallowed ground: Camp Nebagamon in the woods of northwest Wisconsin. I sure didn’t show up already in love with the place. For the first couple of weeks, I was considered “homesick” — at least by 1983 standards. It’s not that I actually wanted to leave and go home, it’s that I was nervous and uncomfortable and struggled with what seemed like a daunting swimming test required to open up my activity options. Today, it would probably be considered anxiety.
Through the intentional efforts of my cabin counselors and the camp directors, and the miracle of a passed swimming test, I finally felt it — camp was home, at least in the summer. Four more summers as a camper and three more as a counselor provided the definitive, formative experience of my life — cementing values, friendships and inside jokes that have carried me through college, careers and raising kids.
As the father of two girls, I came to accept that there would be no Camp Nebagamon tradition in our family, as CN was and remains a boys’ camp. But I kept the spirit alive by attending reunions, maintaining relationships and singing camp songs to my daughters when they were babies.
Then last year, 32 years after my final summer, things changed. My daughter Ellie, who is studying education at Michigan State, decided she wanted to work at a camp. She reached out to Nebagamon’s directors for advice. That turned into a job offer to teach arts and crafts. Camp has always believed that boys should learn from more women in their lives than just their moms and teachers, so the staff has long been co-ed.
Suddenly, I had a “Nebagadaughter.” Quickly fluent in the language, emotional about the places and familiar with the people, she gave me a connection to the place I was never expecting. When she spent her college fall break with camp friends, I knew she was really “in.” When she wanted to go back from a second summer, I knew I had to see her in action.
This July, we figured out a way to visit for a day without disrupting any of her experience. It would also give my wife a chance to see the place she had been hearing about since college. For the first time since I was an 18-year-old cabin counselor, I would be on the grounds not for a reunion — but an actual day of camp.
We had a chance to see our daughter teaching skills to boys while also uplifting and inspiring them. They wanted her attention, her to answer their questions. They looked to her for guidance and reassurance. I stood in that beloved place watching that beloved person carry on a nearly 100-year tradition of allowing kids to learn to be their best while being themselves. Watching that happen before my very eyes filled my heart and soul.
In between activity periods, I got a chance to walk the grounds in their rightful state of being used to the fullest, to catch up with old friends who were there working in various roles and to meet the sons and daughters of guys I knew. I also spent an hour I will always cherish with the camp’s 90-year-old former director, whose father founded the place. She’s the same leader who talked to me on my most “homesick” day and, five years later, in my first counselor training, taught me human relations fundamentals I still use. I got to introduce her to my wife and hear some much-appreciated words of wisdom.
As a camper and counselor, I spent 47 weeks at Nebagamon — 329 days spread over seven unforgettable summers. But the one day I spent there in 2023 may have been the best of all.
Matt Friedman, of West Bloomfield, is co-founder of Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, which he says is the second best job he’s ever had (the best one that involves working primarily indoors).